A couple of weeks ago I got so upset at Alexander Pope’s Essay On Man that we ended up having a big fight. I filled up the margins of the book with lines from Perelandra to console myself and really got a rant out. He didn’t get to respond to me – and so that made it easier :).
Actually, that is an exaggeration - I want to be fair to this great poet, who does, I think, have great talent and probably wrote the Essay on Man out of the best intentions. However, I do think it is important that we question the “greats,” – NOT because they are great but because they are human. The authors of the “classics” are often regarded as incredibly wise and thinking people but this is not always the case, and – as long as we do it humbly – I think it’s crucial that we remember to question them. They are not any less “human” than the rest of us and just as prone to mistakes. Although, of course, this isn’t to say that I don’t think we should admire authors for the wisdom that they display in their writings, I do believe that we shouldn’t idolize them or assume that they will always be right. That said, the lines that I particularly had troubles with were these:
“All Nature is but Art unknown to thee;
All chance direction, which thou canst not see;
All discord, harmony not understood;
All partial evil universal good;
And spite of Pride, in erring Reason’s spite
One truth is clear – whatever is, is right.”
Now, of course, one cannot take Pope seriously here. He surely cannot mean, “Whatever is, is right.” It would be unjust to accuse him of that kind of simple-mindedness – as though he didn’t know about evil = slavery, suicide, addictions, sadism, cruelty, prostitution, oppression, castes, murder, love-of-money, etc….. He knew. So what was he trying to say? This is where the heart of the problem lies, and in reading the poem, one might almost say that he actually believed it was all “destined” to be in order to fulfill a greater good.
Dorothy Sayers (in The Mind Of The Maker*see end note) says, “The fact, however, that ‘all activity is of God’ means that no creative Idea can be wholly destructive: some creation will be produced together with the destruction; and it is the work of the creative mind to see that the destruction is redeemed by it’s creative elements.” Perhaps this thought is what Pope was attempting to express up there, but I guess the root question, the part that Pope didn’t explain very well, is this, “Because the evil was turned to good, was it then, ‘prepared’ that way?” Here is what C.S. Lewis says about that, “Whatever you do, He will make good out of it. But not the good He had prepared for you if you had obeyed Him. That is lost forever. The first King and the first Mother of our world did the forbidden thing; and He brought good of it in the end. But what they did was not good; and what they lost we have not seen. And there were some to whom no good came nor ever will.”
So I guess the answer is no. It was “prepared” to be beautiful, if we had obeyed Him. There was supposed to be no brokenness. And there is. But he made good out of it, and good was “Redemption.” Obviously He knew that we were going to disobey and there was going to be a Fall. But He had something else for us, and, as Aslan says, “No one is ever told what would have happened.” Perhaps the best line I know of on this subject is from "The Last Samurai." Those of you who have seen this movie will remember the part where Captain Algren is talking with Katsumoto and attempting to persuade him not to give up and to keep fighting against the odds, even though it will almost certainly mean defeat. Katsumoto says to him, “Do you believe a man can change his destiny?” and Algren answers, “I believe a man does what he can until his destiny is revealed to him.”
Well, that’s all I have to say on this subject, although I suppose you can see that everything smart in my post was not my own idea but quoted from one of the “greats” :) Oh, and if you disagree, do offer me your alternate opinion – I realize that this is a hard subject and I am totally open to other ideas.
Seize The Day!
*By the way, this book is pretty tough for me and requires my full attention. It is also full of metaphorical language and I would suggest being really careful in quoting from it, as certain passages could easily be misunderstood without the full context. I hope I have quoted her fairly and clearly, without muddling her intended message.
Edit: When I titled the post "The Big Problem With 'The Essay On Man': Misinterpretation," I didn't nessecarily mean that Pope had misinterpreted anything. I just meant that I thought his work was easy to misinterpret.